Monday, February 10, 2020

The Skywalker Saga - II

If Star Wars Episodes I - IX made up a single story, whose story would it be? 


Back in the day, George Lucas said that when the Saga was complete, it would be clear that the story had been told from the droids point of view. 

This could certainly be said to have been true of A New Hope. We start in the middle of a big battle between two spaceships; we focus down on two robots that the human combatants hardly notice. We keep focused on them was they end up with the SECRET PLANS of the EMPIRE'S ULTIMATE WEAPON and as they precipitate Luke's encounter with Ben Kenobi. Threepio saves everyone's life when they are trapped in the garbage masher; Artoo accompanies Luke on his final X-Wing mission. 

The droids defined Star Wars. Having robots as main characters was one of the film's unique selling points. People talked about "Star Wars robots" long before they knew what a Jedi Knight was. I remember being surprised every time I saw Threepio on the big screen He looked like a living,  walking toy; an image on a bubble gum card; a full sized Mickey Mouse at Disney World. He's a stooge, but he's a wonderful stooge, a straight man who keeps on stealing the scene. 

The droids have less and less to do in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. They are present, but awkwardly present, in the prequels: shoe-horned in to fulfill a contractual commitment. Threepio feels like a series of cameos; Artoo like a cute, bleeping sonic screwdriver. 

But one of the nicest things about Rise of Skywalker is that Threepio gets some time in the spotlight. It feels like we've got our old buddy back, for the first time since Return of the Jedi. His presence affects the whole tone of the first half of the movie; puncturing every pompous or melodramatic exchange with a self-deprecating one-liner. And for the first time, he has agency and subjectivity. When he has to sacrifice his own life -- or at any rate his memories -- to save the Rebellion, he is allowed to volunteer; to form an opinion of his own; to say goodbye to his friends. No-one says "He is our toaster and we can take him apart if we want to." He still defers to "Master Luke" and "Mistress Rey", rather in the way Basil Brush used to talk about Mr Roy and Mr Derek. But Rey and Finn and Poe appear to treat him as a person. A person with his own foibles and weaknesses, but a member of the gang. 

Some people were very annoyed with Solo because it included a droid -- a lady droid at that -- who was actively campaigning for droid rights. I never pay any attention to anyone who uses words like "PC" and "SJW". But I did think that the L3-37 plotline risked releasing some political worms that ought really to have stayed in the can. 

I never had too much difficulty accepting a world where Luke Skywalker's farm machines had personalities and could answer him back. That's a fait accompli from the beginning. The Millennium Falcon's engine talks to Threepio; it is entirely likely that Aunt Beru's blue milk jug talks back at her. That's how this world works. You can't laugh at the Flintstones and also wonder if the American Humane association has okayed the working conditions of Wilma's vacuum cleaner. Yes, the sale of Threepio and Artoo looks a little like a slave auction; but it looks a little like a used car dealership as well. But a character like L3-37 forces us to think of droids not as "machines that can talk" but as "people who happen to have metal bodies." At which point it is hard not to say "Waa...Luke Skywalker, to a goodie, is a slave owner!" And then the whole saga falls to pieces. 

"But Artoo Deetoo and See Threepio positively want Luke to buy them" Well yes: but "a caste of slaves who by their nature want to be slaves" is a politically problematic idea in itself. Ask J.K. Rowling. And Douglas Adams demonstrated that "we have bred an animal which positively wants to be eaten" does not necessarily solve the moral difficulties about meat eating. 

Threepio's story arc addresses the question much more subtly. When we met him, he was more or less a willing slave. There was no big moment when anyone said "This is wrong!"  No story in which Threepio became radicalized. Threepio campaigning for Droid Rights is impossible to imagine; like Jeeves joining a trades union. But by the end of the series, Threepio is regarded as a person. By the audience; by the other characters; and most importantly, by himself. 


So: if the Skywalker Saga isn't about the droids, then whose story is it? At one time, when he was most under the influence of Joseph Campbell, George Lucas would certainly have said that it was the story of Darth Vader. For a decade he felt that the Trilogy satisfactorily told the story of the Redemption of Anakin and couldn't be expanded on. Then he -- unwisely, in some people's eyes -- decided that the older story, of the Fall of Anakin could be told as well. 

Anakin Skywalker is the one who will bring balance to the Force. Palpatine is the Sith Master who takes him as his apprentice and turns him to the Dark Side. The first trilogy ends with the birth of Anakin's son; and each of the three films of the second trilogy drive Luke and Darth Vader into confrontations: in the Death Star trench, on Cloud City, and in the Emperor's Throne room over Endor. At the end of the trilogy, Vader comes back to the light and gives his life to destroy the Emperor. He saves Luke; but he says that Luke has also saved him. In the Force Awakens, Luke says that as a result of Palpatine's fall the Force was indeed balanced for many years. A widespread fan interpretation said that Anakin's role as the Chosen One was precisely to kill the Emperor. Only by becoming a Sith Apprentice could he get close enough to the Sith Master to slay him; by turning Anakin to the Dark, Palpatine was ensuring his own destruction. (Gosh! How ironic!) This was the plot of the Dark Empire comic book, incidentally: Luke goes over to the Dark Side, or pretends to go over to the Dark Side, in order to destroy a resurgent Palpatine. 

So; where is Anakin-Vader in Episode IX? Kylo still has his melted mask, a holy relic. The third trilogy is full of the twisted remains of the second; wrecked Star Destroyers and Walkers in Episode VII; a wrecked Death Star in Episode IX - to say nothing of old lightsabers, old X-Wings and old droids. But the message of the movie appears to be that Anakin's sacrifice made no difference. He didn't defeat the Emperor. He didn't end the Sith. Palpatine got knocked down, but he got up again, a hundred times more powerful than before.

Vader is present in episodes VII - IX only as a memory, a reputation, the reputation that Ben Solo is trying and failing to live up to. In Galactic terms the main upshot of the original trilogy is to facilitate the unlikely liaison that produced Kylo Ren. If Leia hadn't put the plans into Artoo Deetoo, she would certainly have never met Han Solo. 

I suppose we could say that the Star Wars saga is the story of how a child was conceived by the midichlorians and of all the implications that single event had on the Galaxy, even unto the third generation. But that's unsatisfying; because the significance of Anakin is taken for granted and not explained. We never find out, really, what bringing balance to the Force means; we never find out who made the Prophecy and when. The Phantom Menace stepped back from the story of the Empire and the Rebellion and asks us to look at in the context of a wider struggle between Jedi and Sith. It's a very different proposition to the original trilogy, but it is an intriguing, evocative space opera in its own right. But the prequel trilogy is full of set-ups that never pay off. Return of the Jedi can't tell us what it means for Darth Vader to be the Chosen One because Lucas didn't know there was such a thing as the Chosen One when he made that movie. The Rise of Skywalker could have pulled the two trilogies together; but it chose not to. There is a broad hint in Revenge of the Sith that Anakin was created, not by microscopic Force pixies, but as the result of evil Dark Side magic carried out by Palpatine's very-nearly canonical master, Darth Plageus. If the Skywalker Saga were a single story, then don't you think that the reborn Emperor, facing Vader's grandkid in a Sith arena, might have mentioned it? "I made Snoke just as my master made Vader" But he doesn't. And now we will never know. 

Lucas reportedly wanted the third trilogy to be set in the microverse of the midichlorians, so we dodged a bullet there. 


So, then. The Skywalker Saga is about Luke Skywalker. Isn't that obvious? Episode I shows how his parents met; Episode II shows how he was conceived; Episode III ends with his birth and his fostering with Mime the Dwarf. (Check this - ed.) Episodes IV, V and VI shows how he learned his true identity and became a Jedi. Episodes VII, VIII and IX show him as an old man, passing the baton on to the next generation. A baby, a hero, the object of a quest, a mentor and a very active ghost. The saga ends in his childhood home; he appears with Leia as a Force Ghost in almost the final shot. Star Wars, the Skywalker Saga is Luke's tale. 

But Luke's Tale is an oddly unsatisfactory narrative: neither a story of great victory nor of terrible, tragic defeat. It's a sequence of apparent victories that turn out not to amount to anything. 

Luke is never as crucial to Rey as Ben Kenobi was to Luke. Pretty much Obi-Wan's life work was as Luke's guardian; saving him from Anakin and watching over him for two decades on Tatooine. Until he met Ben, Luke knew nothing of the Jedi or the Force; we can be pretty certain that if he hadn't met Ben that day he would have lived and died a moisture farmer, or been drafted into the Imperial navy, or murdered by Vader. Rey can use the Force before she knows what it is. Much of the advice that Luke gives her is bad. Old Ben remains the archetypal Jedi, the Jedi that Luke and everyone else aspire to be. Old Luke, is if anything, the Jedi that Rey has to avoid becoming. True, if not for Luke, Kylo Ren might have turned her to the Dark Side; but then, if not for Luke, Kylo Ren might not have existed. The best we can say is that, on several  crucial occasions, Anakin's family held back the tide of the Dark Side, in preparation for the moment when Palpatine's own bloodline would end it. If Luke hadn't been there at the battle of Yavin, the Rebellion would have ended there and then. Luke's presence on the second Death Star held up the Emperor's schemes by twenty years. Luke's self-sacrifice prevents the First Order from destroying the remnant of the Resistance on Crait.

We are told that for two thousand years the Sith preserved themselves by passing their teaching down the generations: from master to apprentice, master to apprentice. Luke's Jedi school is an abject failure. Ben Solo turns to the Dark Side; and all Luke's students are killed. But it achieves one thing: Luke passes Yoda's teaching on to Leia; and Leia is able to pass it on to Rey. Luke is the conduit by which Palpatine's granddaughter becomes the Last Jedi. Master to apprentice. Qui-Gon to Ben, Ben to Luke, Luke to Leia, Leia to Rey. 

That's sometimes all you can do. Take it, feel it, and pass it on. Not for me, not for you, but for someone, somewhere, one day.

For a thousand generations the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic. And then they all died. And for forty years, the Jedi ceased to exist. The Jedi teaching was preserved by just one individual: she will always be remembered as the founder of the New Jedi Order.

"How did the founder come by the name of Skywalker, Master?"

"That is a very long and very strange story, youngling."

"Please tell it to me again."

"Very well. A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there was a slave, and her name was Shmi..."

The Empire Strikes Back changed Star Wars. The Return of the Jedi changed the Empire Strikes Back. The prequels changed the trilogy. The sequels changed the prequels. And the final scene of Episode IX changes the nine part saga. It's called the Rise of Skywalker because it's the story of how Rey chose her name. The trilogy of trilogies is now the story of why the last and first Jedi Knight came to be called Skywalker. "The Skywalker Saga". It's Rey's story now.

I'm Andrew. I like God, Doctor Who, Star Wars, Wagner, folk-music and Spider-Man, not necessarily in that order. I have no political opinions of any kind.

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1 comment:

Mike Taylor said...

"Lucas reportedly wanted the third trilogy to be set in the microverse of the midichlorians."

Is that true? Can it possibly be true? What could it even mean?